Cheers — after more than a century
Expert tries some beer from a 125-year-old bottle; says it has ‘odd, meaty flavour’
An expert on fermentation says lab tests have confirmed the sudsy liquid inside a century-old bottle found recently at the bottom of Halifax harbour is in fact beer — a type of India pale ale that has an “odd, meaty” flavour.
Andrew MacIntosh, a professor at Dalhousie University, says he tried a sip of the ancient brew “for the sake of science.” He says it smelled like a burnt barrel with a bit of sulphur thrown in, but he insisted there were lighter tree fruit notes and the distinct bitterness of a once strong ale.
MacIntosh, who works with the newly formed Canadian Institute for Fermentation Technology, talked about his unusual findings during an interview from his Halifax office on Wednesday.
Q : What did it taste like?
A: I wouldn’t refer to it as tasty, but it was a lot better than I was expecting. It was astringent, a little salty. I was able to detect bitterness, but not obscenely so ... and there was definitely an odd, meaty flavour, which I presumed was from some of the nitrogen that would break down from the yeast.
I expected far more salt concentration and that it would be much less recognizable as a fermentation product. This had a lot of traits: a little fruity but not citrus ... It had characteristics that clearly could be linked to a modern fermentation of barley.
Q : What did it smell like?
A: It had a very strong odour. It wasn’t altogether pleasant, but it was indicative that it wasn’t seawater ... There was a burnt, barrel-like smell to it. That wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t completely off-putting.
Q : What did you hope to learn from these tests?
A: We didn’t know that it was beer. It was a mystery liquid going in. As I study fermentation, it would provide great historical perspective to know how they brewed previously and how fermentation techniques have developed over the years
We have records of how much grain was used, how much malt was used, how much barley. However, the techniques for brewing have changed considerably.
Q : How did you test the beer? A: We used a sterile syringe and we inserted it through the cork ... (Under the microscope) it was just utterly swamped with dead micro-organisms, which is to be expected. It’s comparable to what has been found before in shipwrecked bottles of beer.
We looked at density, the colour of the beer, the pH (acidity) and we looked at the bitterness ... Every test that we’ve done indicated that is was beer.
Q: What did you find?
A: Beer is typically between 4 and 5 (on the pH scale) ... What we found is that this was 4.3, which is exactly comparable to a modern Keith’s ... As for the colour, that is something that can be scientifically quantified. What we found was that it was similar to a standard pale ale.
Q : It was swamped with dead microbes?
A: Yes. We have some lovely pictures of those.
Q : You said the beer registered 15 on the bitterness scale. What does that mean?
A: That’s higher bitterness units than you would find in a lot of industrial, large-scale production lagers. They are often under 10 ... Even after 120 years, it’s still more bitter than a modern beer. That was quite an interesting find. It seems that the cork had made a very good seal. I’m pleasantly surprised.
Q : What is the Canadian Institute of Fermentation Technology?
A: We work with small brewers and companies supporting craft brewing to bring in technology they can make use of, and to understand the science behind fermentation.
We’re very small and very new. We opened our doors this summer and we’ve had a lot of initial success with some of the products that we’ve been working on. We used to focus on the fisheries. Unfortunately, that industry has not been doing a lot of fundamental research lately. But the craft brewing industry has been exploding in the Maritimes.
Andrew MacIntosh, left, and Chris Reynolds, co-owner of a Halifax bar and an expert on craft brewing, sample 100-year-old beer in a handout photo. MacIntosh, an expert on fermentation, says lab tests have confirmed the sudsy liquid inside a century-old bottle found recently at the bottom of Halifax harbour is in fact beer - a type of India pale ale that has an “odd, meaty”" flavour.
Andrew MacIntosh, assistant professor with the department of Process Engineering and Applied Science, works to extract liquid from a century-old bottle, recovered from Halifax Harbour by an amateur SCUBA diver, at the Canadian Institute of Fermentation Technology at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, on Jan. 5.